Up in New York City, an odd battle broke out late last week over a “spontaneous shrine” — one of those compilations of stuffed animals, candles, hand-drawn cards, withering bouquets and other flotsam and jetsam that accumulate nowadays in commemoration of someone’s death. In this case, the deceased was 12-year-old Sammy Cohen-Eckstein, who was hit by a van when he ran into the street while chasing his soccer ball three months ago. It seems one of Sammy’s neighbors decided that three months was long enough for the makeshift memorial, and went there intending to dismantle it, stick the contents in a bag and cart them away.
The battle is between those who believe her act of public housekeeping was unspeakably cruel and heartless, and those who frankly are getting a wee bit tired of such mourning displays. (The back-and-forth in the comments section of an article at Gothamist is a fair summation of the two sides: It’s “Only a truly depraved and insufferable person would do this” vs. “Sorry for your loss, but that does not allow you to clutter up public or someone’s private property.”
Spontaneous shrines, as I learned while researching this article on changing funeral customs, were relatively rare before the untimely death of Princess Diana resulted in a mad outpouring of teddy bears and flowers — a million bouquets, according to some estimates. Visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., often leave personal items by the names of their loved ones; in the aftermath of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, thousands of teddy bears and toys were left at the site. Writing in The American Scholar, Pamela Haag declared such displays maudlin and over-sentimental, in an article called “Death by Treacle,” and worried that “our exposure to public displays of sentiment inoculates us just a bit and leaves us requiring ever more dramatic displays of real, raw feeling.” It ups the ante, and “pushes us to find really and truly extreme anger, or really and truly blameless victims who can stir an unmodified empathy in our stonier hearts or sharpen our blunted sensibilities.”
In the other camp are those who say no one should get to declare it’s time to move on except for those most closely affected by a tragedy. As one commenter in a post on Jezebel put it, “Seriously, why does she get to decide when mourning should cease? WTF?”
It’s a difficult conundrum, trying to strike a balance between private grief and the right of the public not to have to stare at piles of rain-soaked, sun-bleached stuffed animals for months and months. Here in Philly, we have our own example at the site of the building collapse at 22nd and Market. While plans for a memorial park there slowly move forward, a ragtag collection of mementos still decorates the chain-link fence around the site.
I respect others’ rights — and need — to mourn loved ones. I do feel that spontaneous shrines can be intrusive and objectionable when they grow too large or get too old and decrepit. Just as you have a right to remember, I have a right not to. I sympathize with the woman who had to stare at the memorial to Sammy. I sympathize with his parents, too; his mother says she “cried inconsolably” when she heard of the attempt to dismantle it.
The problem, I guess, is that some of us deal with our grief by moving on with life, while others of us cope best by remembering. It’s doubtful the two sides will ever see eye to eye. I know that when I drive past a roadside cross marking a traffic fatality or walk by the building-collapse site, my enjoyment of life is temporarily eclipsed. Some people would say that’s fair; others are suffering, so I should suffer. Others would say the tawdriness of such public displays devalues and demeans true mourning. Which camp do you fall into?
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